History & Evolution of Big Cat Rescue
By: Carole Baskin, Founder of Big Cat Rescue
Big Cat Rescue did not start out as what it has become today. My beliefs, and the sanctuary that reflects them, evolved over time. It involved lessons that came from what I view today as horrible mistakes, and sometimes I feel terrible about how long some realizations took. But I take great pride in what we have become and are accomplishing, and feel great excitement about what I believe we will accomplish in the future.
As detailed in How We Started, the sanctuary began when the search to purchase a pet bobcat kitten brought us unwittingly to a “fur farm” that sold a few cats as pets, but primarily raised them to turn into fur coats. We bought all 56 kittens to save them from being slaughtered.
To learn how to take care of the cats we naturally turned to those who would know, the breeders and owners of exotic cats. Under this influence, initially we believed what you will still hear from the breeders and owners today, i.e. that these cats should be owned privately to “preserve the species,” that they make good pets if properly raised and trained, and that they are safe if you know how to handle them. Our own experience until then with Windsong, my original pet bobcat, had not conflicted with these notions despite the much greater effort she required than a domestic cat. But she had not reached maturity at that point.
Believing as we did that the cats were suitable pets, our plan was to sell and give away as many of the fur farm kittens as we could to what we expected to be good homes. There was no “profit” to be had, but the proceeds of sales helped offset some of the thousands we had spent purchasing and now caring for the cats.
The next four years were a time of enormous work caring for the cats, learning about their needs, learning about the world of exotic pet dealing and ownership, learning about the issues the cats face in the wild, and a gradual but dramatic evolutionary change in my thinking and beliefs. The change occurred as our experience grew. These years also became a time of personal challenge as my husband Don showed signs of mental deterioration, possibly related to brain damage suffered in a small plane crash years before.
As we attended animal auctions, we observed that many of the bidders were taxidermists. They would bid on the animals that went for low prices. Typically these were the ones in the worst condition. Then they would take them into the parking lot and club them to death before taking them home to mount. So we started outbidding them to save the cats we could from that fate. Usually the cats were in poor condition. We would nurse them back to health, then offer them to buyers who we hoped would give them good homes.
Other cats were purchased to get them out of bad conditions or save them from certain death. For instance, we first saw Sarabi the lioness as a five week old cub at an auction where the owners were obviously feeding her curdled milk that she was struggling to spit out. We could not stand to watch and bought her.
Then, during these years we increasingly found that cats we had thought we placed in good homes were not “working out.” People called asking if we would take them back. With rare exceptions we did, because we could not bear the thought of the alternatives. Then, at an auction, I saw a lynx I was sure I recognized as a kitten that I had nurtured and kept alive until we had sold him as a pet. He was thin, scared, and clearly recognized me.
As these experiences multiplied during these years, it became increasingly obvious that many of the cats at the auctions were really abandoned pets. People would get them as young kittens, they would be reasonably manageable for a couple of years, then become problematic as they matured. Or people would buy them not realizing how much work they were and discard them before they matured.
I began reading and hearing about “high mortality rates” for exotic pets, particularly in their first year. This was consistent with the many calls I got from people with kittens that were dying. Much of this happens very early in their lives. In order to get a cat to “bond” with a person, the kittens are typically taken from the mothers shortly after birth. The person becomes the mother, but without the instincts and equipment to be. When we receive orphaned kittens from the wild today, like Faith, a Florida bobcat, and Aries, Artemis and Orion, the cougar cubs from Idaho whose mother was shot by a hunter, the scariest and riskiest time is those early weeks, even for those of us who have extensive experience with the kittens. And these orphaned cats from the wild at least had the advantage of a few weeks of the mother’s milk and care. One frequent cause of death is the owners’ lack of knowledge about how to properly bottle feed them. This leads to milk in their lungs. The cats can die of aspiration (drowning) from the fluid, or with smaller amounts last long enough to contract fatal pneumonia.
As I learned first hand how difficult and expensive it was to give these cats what I viewed as a good home, and I saw how many ended up in bad circumstances or were abandoned, I came to feel that people should be discouraged from getting them as pets. In 1994 I wrote a 100 page book, and 1995 made a home video, about caring for the cats and what it was like to have them as pets. I felt people who wanted the cats as pets were not likely to read or view something that tried to convince them not to do so. But if they saw how much work it was, it would discourage the people who were most likely to abandon them from getting them at all, and at least give those exotic cats who were purchased as pets a chance to be treated in a way that would allow them to survive. We keep the chapters of the book on our website for the same reason today.
In addition to buying cats, we had started breeding some cats under the misguided notion that this was a way to “preserve the species.” A few of our cats were purchased with this in mind, although invariably we were also giving them a home far better than what they were destined for if we did not purchase them. I had not then figured out what seems so obvious to me today, that breeding for life in a cage an animal that was meant to roam free was inherently cruel, and that most of the “homes” these animals would end up in were places where they would live in unsuitable conditions. We believe these cats should not be pets.
About 25% of the cats we house today were born at the sanctuary in those early years. Some were placed with pet owners, then returned or abandoned. A few never left. We have at times referred to all of them as from the “pet trade” or “former pets” because we were, at that time, part of that pet trade. Whether they were born here or not, the point of their story is the same. They do not make good pets, and should not be bred to be pets.
Meantime, word quickly spread that we were providing a home to exotic cats, and we started getting calls asking us to take cats people did not want, which we did. Cats came because the owners said they could not manage them (cougars Shadow and Sugar), or the owners became ill (China Doll the tigress), or the owners got divorced (cougars Cody and Missouri), or they had been used for performing acts and no longer wanted (Shaquille the black leopard), or the cat was interfering with their social life (Squeaker the cougar), or they were moving (Banshee the bobcat), or the cat attacked their child (Ty the serval), or the owners went to jail (Nikita the lioness), or because they said they just did not want them any more (Lola the black leopard). And we knew if we did not take them, they would likely end up destroyed or sold into the auctions or to exhibitors.
As I reached the conclusion that exotic cats should not be pets nor bred for a life in captivity, I was also having to deal the fact that my husband’s mental condition was deteriorating. This affected the sanctuary because he loved the presence of kittens. While I had come to feel strongly that the breeding was wrong, I was also devoted to my husband. I knew he would not yield on this and I was unwilling to ruin our marriage over it. I neutered and spayed the cats as I could, but I was unable to convince him to completely discontinue breeding.
I had never heard of Alzheimer’s Disease, but one of the volunteers who had dealt with it in his family told me that Don was exhibiting behavior indicative of that. I made an appointment for him to be seen by a specialist. But, one week before the appointment, he left home one morning and never returned.
This began a period of time I can only believe I survived because of my faith in God. I was in agony wondering if the man I loved had intentionally left me, was wandering aimlessly due to his mental condition, or had been the victim of foul play, not really knowing which would be more painful. While I hired detectives to search for him, the police conducted their investigation, including looking for any evidence that I might have had a hand in his disappearance. There was none, but the press had a field day speculating and implying that that I had killed him. The bizarre disappearance of the man who kept tigers even got the attention of People Magazine.
I doubt if anyone who has not lived through it themselves can imagine the pain of being accused in the press of killing someone you love. While I grieved, people in supermarkets would ask me “did you feed him to the tigers?” This is personal history, not sanctuary history. But some of the opponents of our efforts to pass stronger laws to protect the cats still distribute or publish these old articles or materials containing this implication as part of their attacks.
For the sanctuary, Don’s disappearance meant that I was able to stop all intentional breeding in 1997. But the sanctuary was under tremendous financial stress because our assets were placed under the supervision of the court and my ability to operate the real estate business that provided funding for the sanctuary or use assets to support the cats was severely constrained. Still, as fast as we could we neutered, spayed, and built cages to separate cats who could breed. While there was no intentional breeding from that time forward, four cats and three binturongs were born unintentionally, mostly to animals we did not believe were capable of breeding but did. The binturongs were thought to be far too old to breed and had lived together for years without breeding when we discovered she had a litter and conceived again before we managed to separate them. Two leopard cats were born to parents we thought were too old to breed, a bobcat hybrid was sired by a hybrid who was supposed to be sterile, and one serval was born to parents we just did not get separated in time because we focused first on the big cats.
We also stopped purchasing cats as a way to rescue them. Aside from the financial constraints, I had come to realize that however well intentioned we had been, by purchasing the cats we were supporting the brokers and breeders that were creating so much suffering. The only exception to this policy involved our fishing cats in 1998. I was called by a broker because he had two fishing cats he said were dying and asked if I wanted them. When I got there, I found Pisces gasping and close to death. When I said I would take them, he said I had to buy them. I could not walk away and let them die, so despite our desperate finances I paid for them. That was the last time I fell into that trap, and the last cat we purchased to save it.
Since then the cats we have taken in have all been either found, orphaned, or relinquished by owners who either could or would not continue to care for them or, in the case of our circus tigers, were sent by the one circus responsible enough to provide a retirement home for their cats at the end of their careers. For instance, Faith, the Florida bobcat cub, was found at five weeks old in a parking lot north of Tampa. She would not have been alone if the mother had not been killed. Cameron and Zabu, our male lion and white tigress, came from a roadside zoo when the husband of the couple operating it died and the wife could not keep it going. Cougar cubs Aries, Artemis and Orion, at four weeks old, came from Idaho after a hunter shot their mother. Idaho does not allow carnivores to be rehabilitated and released and because they are not native to any other state they could never go free.
Since those early years the sanctuary has pursued its vision of ending the abuse and abandonment of captive exotic animals and promoting preservation of the species in the wild. We do this by being an “educational sanctuary” with the dual mission of (a) giving our cats the best care we can while (b) educating the public on the plight of these animals so that some day there will be no need for a sanctuary to exist.
Increasingly the plight of these wonderful animals is resonating with the general public. As a result, recently our efforts, and those of others like us, to encourage laws forbidding breeding and exotic pet ownership have met with escalating success. State after state has passed laws banning ownership of big cats. They vary in effectiveness largely due to what “exemptions” from the law are allowed. But, the trend in state law and public opinion is clear. In 2012, working with a coalition of other animal protection organizations, a federal bill banning possession and breeding except in very limited circumstances was passed.
As we have become a leading and very visible voice not only in support of such legislation, but being asked by legislators to help draft the bills, the breeders, exotic pet owners and exhibitors have attacked me. Lacking substantive arguments in support of their beliefs and activities, which I believe are based on selfish enjoyment of having the animals and/or financial gain, they have spent considerable energy attacking me personally and our sanctuary.
They claim we hide the activities from our early years that you have read about here, which obviously we do not and we never have. While I am not proud that it took me years of seeing increasing amounts of abuse to reverse the beliefs that I accepted as a novice, I believe the experience from those years has been heavily responsible for the success we have been having. I understand the thinking of the pet trade because I was part of it. I believe we are more credible as a source of objective information specifically because we came from the place in which our opponents remain entrenched.
I genuinely hope that over time their thinking will change the way mine has done. In the meantime, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart all of the many wonderful volunteers and thousands of generous financial supporters and “Advocats” without whose hard work we would not be seeing the recent successes.